Seattle First Hill Street Car

Seattle’s new First Hill Street Car (FHSC) finally went into service this month after facing indefinite delays, and its introductory free period has just ended. The modern trolley takes riders from Jackson and 2nd in the International District (just a block off from the southern terminus of Seattle’s former Waterfront line) to Broadway and Pike in Capitol Hill, both adjacent to Link subway stations. According to Google Maps, it’s slower than pretty much any other public transit option for that route, and about the same for some routes between non-terminus stations. Unlike many streetcar projects across the globe, Seattle’s has no signal priority, something even RapidRide busses have. This means traffic lights are not coordinated to the streetcar, giving it the same random chance that cars and traditional busses face. Additionally, they share the lane with regular traffic, and many of the tracks run in the slow right lane of the street, meaning delivery trucks and poor parking-jobs can strand it where a bus could just maneuver. This happened on one of my two rides, delaying us by ten minutes.

The South Lake Union tram (SLUT) has been plagued by the same issues since opening in 2007, giving it an average speed barely higher than walking at 5.37 miles per hour, compared to the Metro bus average of 13.8mph and Link Light Rail’s 27mph. It seems Seattle Department of Transportation didn’t learn much from the SLUT, with the FHSC running between a 4.7 and 6.8mph on average. Built in the Czech Republic, the trams fit 27 seated and 113 standing (140 total) passengers, compared to the newest 60ft articulated Metro busses that fit 59 seated and 57 standing (116), making the difference in capacity minimal and mixed in tradeoffs. In many ways, RapidRide faced the same half-assery in implementation, not ultimately meeting the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) spec that it set out to fulfill, and giving the public the idea that BRT just means, “paint it red”.

The new tram isn’t entirely a failure. Trains attract riders in a way no bus can. Riding one isn’t perceived as just the “poor” alternative to driving. People like trains, and generally have a negative view of busses. It’s true, the trams have a nice interior environment, seeming to provoke more conversation with fellow riders than a bus (generally, on how slow the ride is), offer natural light and panoramic views, and are clean and well ventilated. It’s smoother than any bus, has on-station payments that allow all doors to be used for faster boardings, and wheelchair and cyclist accessibility without delaying the ride thanks to a floor that’s level with stations and in-cabin bike racks. They’re also cute, in a very urban European way. While the upfront expense was massive, the operating cost is far lower than a diesel bus, and you can pretty much guarantee it’ll be around for the distant future, while busses can be erased by politics at any moment. Currently under construction, the SLUT will gain some of its own right of way and signal priority in March, hopefully improving speed.

Eventually, the City Center Connector portion will bridge the downtown-core gap between the two lines using dedicated lanes, making it fast and reliable. Perhaps, the FHSC will one day receive the same improvements that the SLUT’s getting. Still, low capacity trams are more emotion than practicality. Properly implemented Bus Rapid Transit can be as fast as any streetcar if given the same quality of stations and right of way, and can be as clean cheap to run as a tram by overhead trolleybus wires or battery power, yet it wouldn’t give the same warm feeling of urban love of permanent infrastructure.

The project was originally proposed as a compromise for not building a First Hill subway stop as part Link Light Rail’s U-Link expansion, which is opening March 19th on Broadway and at the Husky Stadium. Link is proper mass transit, offering grade grade separation (elevated and subway) and up to 800 passengers per driver. The streetcar cost $134 million to build, making its dollar per mile ($53 million) about 1/3rd that of Link ($160m), but seven times that of electric trolleybuses ($7-8m). All three have an operating cost per passenger mile far lower than diesel busses, and rely on our zero emission (but still environmentally problematic) hydro-electric grid. Some argue streetcars are at best a distraction from real progress, and at worst confuse residents about transit projects. I still like them, for all the irrational reasons to. This irrationality is of course why it’s easier to sell politicians and voters on transit improvements as part of a new train than to an existing bus line, even though the performance would be comparable.

Transfers between Sound Transit or King County Metro and SDOT streetcars only work through the Orca card, paper is not accepted.